“Archer,” Adam Reed’s fantastically bawdy, esoteric reference-happy FX animated comedy, spent its first four years in a time-warped world of espionage in which the fashions and technologies were from multiple eras and the Cold War never ended. It was never very clear how the International Secret Intelligence Service — aka ISIS — worked, other than it was a not-always-successful business that seemed to take on jobs for private clients as often as it did ones in the national interest. But seeing as how much of the time the company’s missions turned out to just be personal errands — going to Monaco to get back one of Malory’s (Jessica Walter) sex tapes, or stealing a diamond as payback for losing a contract to rivals ODIN, or attempting to rescue Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) from the pirates he’s since joined — none of the staffers seemed all that aware either. “Archer” is a show about globe-trotting secret agents that’s really just an extremely dysfunctional workplace comedy — which is how it was able to dump the whole spy thing in this month’s season five premiere “White Elephant” when the feds raided the office, revealing that ISIS was never sanctioned by the U.S. government to begin with.
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Details, details. What’s a group of highly skilled, selfish, petty agents with terrible impulse control to do? Well, there’s always that literal ton of cocaine they’ve had sitting around that they can sell off. Season five has found “Archer” making the switch from an espionage series to “Archer: Vice,” with the ISIS crew going from a mostly terrible intelligence agency to a mostly terrible drug cartel (“How hard could it be? I mean, if Mexicans can do it…” mused Malory, with characteristic awfulness) — and what’s been so enjoyable about it is the way the switch has provided a refresh for the show without significantly altering its DNA.
“Archer” is about the bickering, conniving, reluctant permanent connections between its characters, who were apparently always operating on the wrong side of the law before, anyway. Tweaking their missions from ones about dealing with KGB agents, cyborgs and cyborg KGB agents to ones about Miami dealers and the yakuza has not significantly altered the overall feel of the show, even in its new digs — the cavernous Tunt family mansion. It’s even allowed multiple callbacks to past seasons, from Ron Perlman’s Ramon Limon (“Honeypot”) to George Takei’s Mr. Moto (this Monday’s episode, “Drift Problem”).
The longer “Archer” runs, the more it’s confronted with that question particular to animated series — its characters will only visibly change if they’re made to. They could feasibly stay the same forever, like, say, “The Simpsons,” essentially resetting at the end of every episode, or they could change and grow, or whatever Archer and company do instead of growing. The pleasures of “Archer” tend to be wonderfully silly and in terrible taste, but at the same time the characters do have a history — Archer’s had his heart broken and had a health scare, Lana’s (Aisha Tyler) now pregnant (though not making any noticeable changes to her hazardous lifestyle) and Archer and Lana, despite having an utterly disastrous and stories relationship, now have moments of tenderness between all the bickering. The ISIS team has become a family — an offensive, disastrous, hilariously abusive family — whether they’re in the office or not.
I asked Adam Reed about time passing on the series at New York Comic Con a few months ago, and he said he saw the characters as “growing as people but not necessarily improving as people.” “We are learning more about them,” he noted. “And that’s one of my favorite things — to suddenly learn that Pam is an underground fighter or Woodhouse was in the RAF. Once we learn those things, I guess on some level that helps inform who they are and maybe why they act like they do, but at the same time, they’re pretty much jerks.” Jerks who are now in the process of losing (or eating) cocaine, and who, if the “Baby, Please Don’t Go” montage at the end of the season premiere continues to be a reliable indication, will soon be starting coups and getting tangled up in CIA arms deals. This new season has been reassuring proof that “Archer” can explore new territory while remaining true to itself — whether they’re back in the office in a sixth season or not, all doing an alarming job of raising Lana’s baby.